A Senate bill to limit local authority over concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) is on the way to Gov. Mike Parson’s desk, marking the next chapter in the epic CAFO-based struggles within county commissions and health boards throughout the state.
With the stroke of a pen, counties and municipalities would no longer be able to exceed state standards for regulating CAFOs. This means 20 of the 114 counties in Missouri will relinquish their public health ordinances aimed at protecting against the potential impacts of CAFOs.
Pro-CAFO Republicans lauded the bill as a way to vanquish county ordinances designed to limit or prevent high-density indoor livestock operations. The bill would set consistent regulations throughout the state so CAFOs could be set up anywhere, without the cobweb of regulations from county to county, deemed an inexcusable inconvenience by major livestock producers.
Bill opponents championed the age-old principle of local control, to protect public health and residential property values as they deem fit, even if the decision comes down to county voters. Rep. Tracy McCreery, D-Olivette, offered an amendment to allow counties to enact CAFO regulations more stringent than state law if citizens vote to approve them, but it failed 108-41.
It’s not surprising which side of this debate won out in the hearts and minds of the Republican majority. Agriculture is the state’s largest economic driver, with almost 100,000 farms contributing $88 billion to the economy. It is true that the CAFO industry benefits massive corporations — which bring in a lot of tax dollars and potentially a bunch of campaign funding — but CAFOs are also a way for smaller family farms to maximize their livestock output with the amount of land they have available.
The core argument from mid-Missouri CAFO opponents is that the CAFO method has contaminated water sources in the past, such as in 2014 when 10,000 gallons of Pork Master Inc. effluent that spilled into a tributary of Millers Creek in Callaway County. Opponents say CAFOs may help drive the state’s economy, but the people that live around the CAFOs and drink from the surrounding wells have more direct concerns, like groundwater quality around CAFO lagoons and manure storage pits. “Accidents happen, and we don’t want to take the risk,” opponents say.
CAFO-Republicans have said that if protecting the environment were the key concern of those proposing county-level ordinances, those ordinances would not be so similar to one another in counties that have drastically different topography. They’ve also said county health board members aren’t qualified to regulate agricultural operations. That’s pretty much what the Cooper County Health Board said when concerned residents began demanding a health ordinance. But give credit to the health board members who drilled down and learned a lot to better understand and potentially regulate CAFOs, though it seems they won’t have to now.
Republican bill supporters also indicated DNR is among the few agencies qualified to regulate agriculture. That rings an alarm bell because, on background, more than one DNR staffer last year said the department doesn’t have the resources necessary to adequately monitor the state’s hundreds of existing “impaired” waters while trying to keep up with inspecting already established CAFOs.
Some of these waters are the ponds and creeks in which older rural residents used to swim, but doctors wouldn’t advise it for their children. There are more than 100 waters contaminated with E. coli.
What are some major causes of E. coli? Well, according to DNR, there’s “urban runoff/storm sewers” and rural nonpoint sources, aka manure runoff. The CAFO industry isn’t the only cause of these issues, but it certainly doesn’t help.
In this battle, we have rural values playing against each other. There is the ideal that a person should have the freedom to use their land to make a living how they see fit, especially in an ever-developing, highly competitive international ag industry. But there is also the dream that the country should be a place with guaranteed clean water, which should trump all other concerns.
The state should provide DNR with enough resources to perform its duties, and members of local communities need to work together to balance advancing agriculture and protecting public health, outside of the legislative process, because at its core, many of these debates are between neighbors.
Allen Fennewald is the GateHouse Missouri regional editor overseeing newspapers in Mexico, Moberly, Boonville and Hannibal. He can be reached at email@example.com. He also hosts the Mid-Missouri Regional Review podcast, which highlights regional issues affecting the region. The podcast can be found online at omny.fm/shows/mid-missouri-regional-review.